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Preterm labor

  • Preterm labor can happen to any pregnant woman.
  • Some women have a higher risk than others.
  • Learn the signs of preterm labor.
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Signs of preterm labor

Preterm labor is labor that happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy. This is too early for your baby to be born. Babies born too soon can have lifelong or life-threatening health problems.

What are the warning signs of preterm labor?

Here are some signs that you may have preterm labor:

  • Contractions (your belly tightens like a fist) every 10 minutes or more often
  • Change in vaginal discharge (leaking fluid or bleeding from your vagina)
  • Pelvic pressure—the feeling that your baby is pushing down
  • Low, dull backache
  • Cramps that feel like your period
  • Belly cramps with or without diarrhea

What should you do if you think you're having preterm labor?

Call your health care provider or go to the hospital right away if you think you're having preterm labor, or if you have any of the warning signs. Call even if you have only one sign.

Your health care provider may tell you to: 

  • Come into the office or go to the hospital for a checkup.
  • Stop what you're doing. Rest on your left side for 1 hour. 
  • Drink 2 to 3 glasses of water or juice (not coffee or soda).

If the signs get worse or don’t go away after 1 hour, call your provider again or go to the hospital. If they get better, relax for the rest of the day.

Can preterm labor be stopped?

Your provider may give you medicine to try to stop preterm labor. You also may get some medicine that can improve your baby's health, even if he does come early.

Last reviewed January 2013

See also: Medicines for preterm labor

Signs of preterm labor

  • Contractions every 10 minutes or more often
  • Change in vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pressure
  • Low, dull backache
  • Cramps that feel like your period
  • Abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea

Most common questions

Am I at risk for preterm labor?

No one knows for sure what causes a woman to have preterm labor. But if you have certain risk factors, you're more likely than a woman without risk factors to have preterm labor. Risk factors include: having already had a premature baby or getting pregnant again too soon after having a baby; being pregnant with twins or more; and having problems with your uterus or cervix. You're more likely to have preterm labor if you're underweight or overweight or if you have health problems, like high blood pressure, diabetes or certain infections. Things in your life like stress, smoking, drinking alcohol and using drugs also put you at risk. Talk to your provider if you have any of these risk factors. You may be able to reduce your risk and have a better chance for a healthy pregnancy.

How do I know I’m in labor?

You'll know you're in labor if:

  • You have strong and regular contractions that last 30 to 60 seconds and come 5 to 10 minutes apart.
  • Your water breaks. Your baby has been growing in amniotic fluid (bag of waters) in your uterus. When the bag of waters breaks you may feel a big rush of waters or you may feel just a trickle.
  • You bleed a little from your vagina. This is called bloody show.

If you think you're in labor, call your health care provider, no matter what time of day or night.

How early can a baby be born and live?

There is no set timeline for survival for babies born early. Babies born earlier than 23 weeks have a much smaller chance of survival than babies born after 23 weeks.

About 9 out of 10 babies born at 28 weeks survive. But many have serious health problems. Any baby born before 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered premature. Premature babies have less time to develop in the womb than babies who arrive on time. This puts them at greater risk of medical and developmental problems. Every extra day in the womb helps the baby develop and mature and probably improve his or her health and development later in life. Between 23 and 26 weeks, every extra day in the womb increases a baby's chance of survival by 2 to 4 percent.

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